How I teach hip hop
There’s something different about Laurieann Gibson’s take on hip hop. Despite hard-hitting and sexy moves, her center is pulled up, and when she contracts, she lets out a long exhale. The influence and poise of years of ballet and modern training is apparent. A true chameleon, Gibson has transitioned from modern dancer to fiery hip hopper and is now one of the most sought-after choreographers in the music industry.
Each artist she works with exposes a different side of her choreographic range. She revealed a jazzy and spunky edge for pop singer Katy Perry, and for R&B artist Keri Hilson, Gibson’s style became raw and seductive. But Gibson’s multifaceted voice has come to fruition with Lady Gaga, the singer who Gibson has helped mold into an icon. As the creative director and choreographer for the Haus of Gaga, Gibson is the motivation behind the unconventional image that makes this pop star a sensation—from prosthetics on her face to her signature monster claw—and her quirky and aggressive movement style is truly one of a kind.
Classically trained, Gibson began her rise to the top at The Ailey School in New York City. But excited by the opportunity to dance for “The Queen of Hip Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige, she left. “Hip hop gave me freedom,” Gibson says. But she never forgot her roots, especially when she segued from dancer to choreographer. “My training at Alvin Ailey and a combination of Horton, Dunham and Graham birthed my opinion as a choreographer,” she says. “The core of everything I do is modern.”
In 2005, she went from behind the scenes to center stage when her voice hit the small screen on the popular MTV reality show “Making the Band.” Catch phrases such as “Muffins” and “Boom-Kack” caught on quickly, and Gibson was raised to celebrity status among viewers. She returns to the world of reality television this year, balancing the filming of two shows (“The Laurieann Gibson Project” on BET and “The Dance Scene” on E!) with her busy schedule alongside Lady Gaga, traveling with her on tour, leading rehearsals and directing one-of-a-kind videos.
No matter how hectic Gibson’s life gets, she always makes time for The PULSE On Tour convention, which she describes as family—she’s been on faculty there for five years. “I love to teach, so I will absolutely never stop. And I only teach at The PULSE,” she says. “When I’m there, I try to fill each step with confidence and encourage the dancers to be fearless.”
Pam Chancey, director of the convention, says Gibson’s classes are wild. “They end up looking like a party at some points,” she says. “What she’s teaching them is difficult, especially if it’s something from a recent video. But she gets it out of them, because they want to make her proud.”
Never one to do what’s expected, Gibson often jumps down off the stage to get on the kids’ level. “Some teachers have trouble getting their message across at conventions,” says Chancey. “They have to make sure that each individual dancer, even in the very back row, is inspired. I never have a question that that’s going to happen in Laurieann’s class.” Full of energy and a contagious excitement, Gibson has no problem commanding a packed room of students, and at The PULSE that can mean up to 800 dancers at once.
The PULSE dancers are perhaps most inspired by Gibson during question-and-answer sessions. Students are shocked to hear about her past as a classical dancer. Known to hire dancers right off The PULSE floor, the first thing Gibson looks for is solid technique. “Longevity, strength and understanding separates trained dancers and keeps them in the game longer,” she says. “Even though I do hip hop or pop jazz, my dancers are pulling up on that supporting leg, contracting and using their breath. I’m not saying you can’t make it if you’re from the streets, but you have to get into class. Especially as dancers in the music industry, in a video or on tour, you have to be smart and trained and technical. I take that very seriously.”
She is equally demanding of those who are front and center: the artists themselves. In Lady Gaga’s recent video, “Born This Way,” Gibson’s choreography has the singer rolling up through her spine and performing passés and développés; and she pulls it off, with pointed feet and all. Gibson even brought the pop queen to her old training grounds, Alvin Ailey’s Joan Weill Center for Dance, to teach her the moves. “More than any of my artists, I developed Gaga like a dancer,” says Gibson. “I don’t know how you glissade, jeté and then pop your booty—but we’re doing it.”
Here, Gibson teaches a phrase from the beginning of the “Born This Way” chorus, incorporating contractions and breath into Lady Gaga’s signature hip-hop style.
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Laurieann Gibson was director of choreography for Motown and Bad Boy Records, where she worked with celebrities Missy Elliott, Britney Spears, The Jonas Brothers, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Katy Perry. Gibson has worked on ad campaigns for GMC Envoy, Hoover Vacuums, KMart and McDonald’s, and she has choreographed for the motion pictures Alfie and Honey. In the latter, Gibson played Katrina, the title character’s nemesis, in a story greatly inspired by her own life. In 2005, Gibson became the on-air choreographer for the MTV reality show “Making the Band,” starring girl group Danity Kane. She has also appeared as a choreographer for Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and a judge on ABC’s “Skating with the Stars.” Currently, Gibson serves as creative director and choreographer for Lady Gaga, recently directing and choreographing her “The Fame Monster World Tour 2010.” As a teacher, Gibson headlines the touring dance convention The PULSE.
Photo: Laurieann Gibson at Broadway Dance Center in NYC (by Matthew Murphy)